Sunday, August 25, 2013

American Foods Italians Don't Get (At Least Right Away)

Italy is a food-centric nation whose inhabitants are either too smug to eat anything foreign or extremely happy to try anything new because, hey, what else is there in life other than food? I fall into the second category, thankfully, and I'm always happy and curious to try foreign specialties and unusual food preparations. In my 9 years in the United States, I've noticed there are some American foods that Italians really struggle with. Some foods can never be loved, others grow on us over time until we embrace them fully.

Peanut Butter

First Reaction: "Help! I think I'm choking!"
When Italians try peanut butter for the first time they are really surprised by how intense the flavor is. I think Italians are confused by the word "butter". I, for example, was picturing peanut butter as a creamy dairy product with a touch of peanut flavor. My first taste was like a punch in the gut to all my taste buds (anatomically confusing, I know). What is even more jolting to Italians, however, is the texture. Italians really don't have anything as sticky as peanut butter, and often their first taste leaves them choking in confusion.
Over Time:  I love peanut butter and I now I eat it happily pretty much every day (it is now even part of my pregnancy cravings, as you can see here), and I know other Italians who really warmed up to it and other nut butters.

Root Beer 

First Reaction: "%#*♘@☆&*!!!"
When I moved to the US at the age of 28, I had never experienced heartburn. Within 2 months of daily American coffee sipped at intervals throughout the day, I finally experienced "that warm feeling" tearing my esophagus apart. "Welcome to America!" said a friend, and the rest is history. I use this introduction to explain what root beer tastes like to me: like heartburn in a bottle. Speaking with other Italians and watching them while they took their first sip just confirmed my opinion. Root beer is the weirdest drink on the planet: It tastes like a medicine, it hurts, and we can't believe American children love it.
Over Time: One sip is enough. I can't see my fellow Italians going near root beer ever again after the first attempt.


First Reaction: "Why are there soap shavings in my burrito?"
Cilantro is not strictly American, I know, but it's sprinkled in so many dishes consumed by Americans every day. To an Italian palate (and to a Spanish and British, too, as far as I know), cilantro tastes like soap, and we all know how great soap tastes. During my first American months, I remember just cursing the universe every time I found cilantro in fantastic-looking South-American dishes, and I even cried a few times when I mistakenly bought cilantro instead of parsley.
Over Time: I personally have changed my mind completely about cilantro, and the same has happened to other Italians I know. I can't believe there was a time I didn't like this wonderful herb, and today I insist all my Italian guests give it a chance. I totally get its fresh flavor that brightens up every meal. Cilantro, you make me happy. Sorry for ever doubting you.

Soft, Chewy Cookies

First Reaction: "Why was this cookie left out all night on the beach?" 
It's a fact that Italians are not dessert-maniacs like Americans are, but still, in Italian cuisine "chewy" is never a selling point: It's a flaw. What Italians do treasure in cookies is friability, or the ability to break apart without too much effort. We want crunch and buttery crumbs, not pliability.
Over Time: Some Italians might warm up to chewy cookies, but I doubt it. In my opinion, the much-maligned cupcakes, as stupid as they've become, are always preferable to this misshapen, sugary mess. Sorry.


First Reaction: "Wow. The economy must be REALLY bad here."
Italians' first spoonful of this gooey concoction stirs feelings of deep sadness and pity. Wasn't America the land of riches? Why is everybody eating this gruel? It's really a surprise that the country that celebrates breakfast with bacon, pancakes, and omelettes can also enjoy this unappealing bowl of grey, boiled oats. We understand it's healthy, but wouldn't a piece of fruit give you more joy?
Over Time: Here's another food about which Italians can change their minds completely. As far as I'm concerned, once I learned to prepare oatmeal with milk rather than with water alone, and spice it or mix it with fruit, I understood its unadorned, almost Dickensian appeal. I eat oatmeal at least twice a week, and it feels and tastes great to me. It makes me feel like my toddler and I should go on strike at the cotton mill we both work at, and one day we just might!

Marshmallows on Sweet-Potato Casseroles
First Reaction: "Did you bake this casserole with the plastic top still on?"
Italians know very little about marshmallows, and what they know mostly comes from Ghostbusters. The only marshmallows available in Italy are the white and pink variety, usually coated in a dusting of sugar. We might have seen marshmallow roasted in a Peanuts comic strip, but that's about it. Seeing them burnt and melted on top of a casserole and then biting into their gooey mega-sweetness is just too overwhelming for our senses. Too sweet, too sticky, too absurd.
Over Time: This is another food to which an Italian can give one chance only. I did.

Fried Oysters... On A Sandwich???

First Reaction: "Who's Going to Pay for This?"
In Italy, oysters are delicacy for the few, to be consumed strictly raw and with as little flavor-alteration as possible. Oysters are a kiss from Poseidon given to the rich and the beautiful. Seeing them fried and slapped on a sandwich just blows our minds. What's next: Taco Bell's Caviar and Saffron Volcano Maximelt?
Over Time: The first morsel may puzzle us, but by the second we're hooked. This wonderful decadent and unexpected treat is something Italians can't wait to report back at home to impress their friends.

And now let me answer the question that is burning in your mind, dear American reader. Should you serve these foods to your Italian guests when they are visiting? OF COURSE YOU SHOULD. It does not matter if you're dealing with the mega-nationalist or the happy-traveler guest variety: Italians ask nothing more than to compare their food to yours. If they like what they eat, they'll feel wonderfully cosmopolitan and sophisticated. If they don't, they'll just love to tear your food habits to shreds once they go back home to their peeps. No matter their reaction, they'll be happy as (fried) clams.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Problem with Having Children in Our 30s

You thought you signed on for weekly posts on Italian food and culture? Well, then let me disappoint you with this: Dead Chef does more than cook! I am the mother of a bi-cultural bundle of destruction (with another on the way) and the wife of an American who is good at everything except speaking Italian. From time to time my posts will wander into my life with these gentlemen and may or may not circle back to what we ate for lunch. *waits as readers click on more interesting bookmark and leaves the page*

Okay, so for those of you who stayed, let's move on. Here are my reflections on having children in my 30s, and why I came to the conclusion that becoming a mother in my early 20s would have been a much better choice. I mostly base my observations on my experience and that of my sister. I had my first child at the age of 34 and I'm expecting my second now at 36. My sister had her first child at 23 and her second only 14 months later. I suspect that most of the points I make will be completely obvious to you (although obvious always makes for great filler on the web, as demonstrated by this), so I'm throwing in a bonus theory that might or might not shock you.

So, what are the problems with having children in our 30s?

1. We Just Don't Have the Physique Anymore
My sister held her first child all the time for the entire first year, and not because she was following attachment parenting, but because SHE LIKED IT. When my son was born, I could wear the sling for just about 20 minutes at a time before shooting pains in my back would force me crying to my knees. We all know this: We are just not that strong and resilient as we were in our 20s. Not only we can't hold our howling toddlers for the time it takes to bring them outside the store, but we are terrified when they ask us to spin them or throw them in the air (even though we know that will be their happiest childhood memory).

2. We Read Too Many Parenting Books 
My sister relied on one book to raise her two wonderful kids. Since I became pregnant for the first time three years ago, I purchased/borrowed the following: 2 pregnancy books, 1 book for birth partners, 1 book for working mothers, 1 book on sleep training, 3 pediatrics guides, 5 parenting books for babies and toddlers, 1 parenting books for boys, 2 books on Waldorf education, 2 books on natural postpartum support, 1 book on potty training, 2 books on having a second child. (Oh, of course I had a book about how to get pregnant, too.) At 30 we love to be informed and discuss the philosophies behind everything. Of course, we also soon discover that none of those books ever describe our unique situations, but we keep on reading because it makes us feel smart and prepared. Plus, reading boosts our self-confidence while allowing us to sit, which bring us back to point #1.

3. We Are Used to Living in Luxury 
If you have a child in your 20s, you might wonder how great life would be if you hadn't had children. At 30, you know it. Right before we got pregnant, many of us were living the dream: we dined out often, traveled the world, practiced gear-laden sports, celebrated at spas, and owned pets that than ate better than most of the world's population. It's pretty obvious that when a child comes, most of the money, time, and energy spent on enjoying luxury are greatly reduced, and that's a shock.

4. We Worry Too Much
Today, all playground slides look like this to me.
The older we get, the more we worry about our children getting hurt. I suspect the reason is that aging impairs our instinctual understanding of body movement. As we become more awkward and unbalanced with every passing year, we forget how it feels to be perfectly strong, flexible, and nimble as children are. My sister would cheer her children when they would go down the slide head first. I cover my eyes and pray to the first deity that comes to mind.

5. Our Standards Are Too High
If we're lucky, by the time we hit 30 we have gotten rid of mean friends, abusive bosses, and super-slob half-boyfriends or half-girlfriends. At 30, we start saying things like, "I would never let anyone treat me like that!" and we mean it. This is an accomplishment to celebrate, but there's a downside to it. As we become more assertive, we lose some of our ability to accept life as it comes. And so when our baby does not nap, or eats erratically, or cries for hours, or in any way fails to meet our ideal family standards, we break down and frantically start looking for solutions that most likely do not exist. If we were in your 20s and used to never really having it our way, we'd be much more relaxed and accept these problems as part of life.

So, what does all of this tell us? It's time for...



This theory may prove a little controversial, if only for the fact that it has absolutely no scientific basis. Still, here it is. We have always been told that the sudden urge to become parents in our late 30s is the result of our biological clock telling us, "Now or never". Well, I don't think that's the message. I think what our biological clock is telling us is, "It's time to become grandparents!" As sad as it sounds, at 36 I could easily have an 18-year-old daughter happily pregnant with her first child. She would be a wonderfully energetic, accepting parent with no knowledge of how great life can be, and I would be the slightly less energetic, incredibly knowledgeable, well-traveled, yet prudent grandma who helps her raise her children after 8 hours of blissful, uninterrupted sleep. What a wonderful village that would be, wouldn't it?

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Drive Your Italian Hosts Crazy #1: Disrespecting Mealtimes

The rest of of the world views Italy as a weirdly-shaped peninsula whose inhabitants live without the least concern for rules, responsibility, or noise levels. As an Italian, I must admit that is exactly how we see ourselves, and proudly, too.

Do you want to know the truth, though? Everybody is wrong. Italian behavior is actually regulated by a myriad of rules concerning each and every aspect of life. The words we say when we enter or leave a store, the body language we use on a crowded bus, the formalities in making a phone call before dinnertime, the good wishes we express to a friend: All need to follow specific and accepted ways, and any variation will most certainly cause an anxiety attack. The only reason we still consider ourselves adorable anarchists is that all of these rules are unspoken, and we discover their depth only when we live abroad for more than two years (FACT).

In this series, I'll go through some of these unspoken rules so that you, my American friends, can learn to understand our panic and, if you care, prevent it.

Rule #1: Italians eat only at mealtimes. 

This seems normal enough, but what I really mean is that Italians do not deal well with the idea of a lunch or dinner that does not happen at designated times. Here are sample mealtimes for Northern Italians*:

4pmSnack (only for kids, really)

What happens when an American comes to visit, though? Well, let me tell you about my personal experience with yet another handy table:

7—8amBreakfastDrinks an espresso.Drinks an espresso, eats a small breakfast.
10am (Not a mealtime)Asks for a second espresso and a ham sandwich.Drinks espresso, orders small sandwich, fears lunch appetite is ruined.
12—1:30pmLunchRefuses lunch, prefers sightseeing.Represses hunger pains, dreams about pasta.
4pmSnackAsks for a snack, preferably savory and local. Or, massive gelato.Eats small gelato, fears dinner appetite is ruined.
7—9pmDinnerTakes shower.Feels moderate hunger pains, wonders when dinner might be.
9:30pm (Not a mealtime)Demands a pizza and has plans for wine, appetizers, and dessert, too.Eats a Margherita, pleads with waiter to delay mopping the floor with bleach until drunken guest is done with frozen tiramisu.

As you can see, the natural Italian sense of hospitality allows our American guests to have his or her own dream vacation—which is actually a total mirage—while the Italian host's metabolism and emotional wellbeing become severely compromised. It's a failure on all fronts.

So, my suggestion is: Let your hosts be the guide of your meals and do not trust them when they politely ask what you would like to eat. You don't know what you want. They do.

*Geography affects mealtimes considerably. In the Austrian Alps, it is common for restaurant kitchens to close at 8:30pm ON A WEEKEND, whereas in happy Sicily dinner may not happen before 10pm. I'm from Venice, so I'll write about what I know.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Perfect Pasta: Dead Chef's Technique

As promised, here's my almost-magic technique for cooking perfect pasta... so perfect you can serve it to your Italian guests without fear of silent judgement or, God forbid, tears.

I personally* developed this technique over 10 years ago, and it has made such a difference in the pasta I eat at home it's almost ludicrous. The pasta ends up perfectly cooked and absorbs the sauce's flavor in a way that does not happen through simple sautéing. Plus, you get a slight creaminess that just makes the whole dish look and taste almost professional. I'm boasting, I know. But I'm also drooling, so you know I'm sincere.

First things first: If you haven't, read this post to learn about the correct amount of pasta, water, and salt for your recipe: American Pasta: 11 Ways You're Doing It Wrong. You have to know the basics, right? Done? LET'S DO IT!

Note: The recipe here is simple whole-wheat penne** with tomatoes, black cured olives, and mozzarella. What you'll see is two Italian portions, enough for a quick lunch for me and my 2-year-old.


1. Cook or reheat your sauce in a large pan while the water is boiling or the pasta is cooking, depending on how long it takes.

2. Boil the pasta in salted water (really, salt it!), and taste it 12 min before it's supposed to be ready. When you see the "soul" of the pasta (or the tiny white ringlet of uncooked-ness), move to the next step.

3. Pour one full ladle of cooking water into a cup and set aside.

4. Drain the pasta and pour it in the pan with the sauce, stir, and keep cooking at medium heat.

5. Add a splash (I'd say a few tablespoons) of the reserved pasta water and stir gently until the water has been absorbed.

6. Keeping adding water to the pasta and letting it absorb until the pasta is perfectly cooked and still al dente. You don't have to use the whole cup, and in my experience 2–3 rounds will do. How do you know it's ready? TASTE IT.

RESULT: Here is the finished pasta. I added some mozzarella at the very end so it would stay firm and not melt into a single squeaky block. Notice the pasta's color: you can see it has absorbed the juices from the olive oil, the tomatoes, and the black olives.

N.A.Q. (Never Asked Questions)

Gratuitous close-up.
I don't have a list of F.A.Q. because I just published this, but I know what you all might wonder...

WHAT DOES THIS DO? I have no scientific insight on the matter, but I think the salt and starch in the cooking water allows the pasta to absorb the sauce better. What I do know, is that the starch in the water will thicken into a creamy sheen that will prevent your pasta from drying out. 

I FORGOT TO RESERVE THE PASTA WATER. CAN I USE HOT WATER OR BROTH? No, I tried and they don't work. They simply dilute the flavor and the broth also alters it too much. Finally, neither created the creaminess I obtained with the pasta water. (Please note that whole-wheat pasta will be less creamy, but not less flavorful.)

IS THIS THE RISOTTO-STYLE TECHNIQUE FOR PASTA I READ ABOUT? No, because in that case the pasta is cooked from the beginning by adding liquid gradually as you would with risotto. I tried the technique and it's great, but in my opinion it takes too long, and the pasta ends up being a little too starchy (if you need a more professional opinion, then please know that Mark Ladner, executive chef of Del Posto restaurant in NY, said the same in the 2013 Winter issue of Lucky Peach.)

WON'T I RUIN THE SAUCE BY BASICALLY BOILING IT? This is an excellent question. Well played, my friend! Runnier sauces like marinara will be fine, but if you're cooking seafood or vegetables that should retain some "crunch", then yes, adding water and prolonging the cooking might ruin everything. In that case, put the condiment in another plate and let just enough juices in the pan to follow the process. Stir everything back together once the pasta is ready.

YEAH, BUT WHAT IF I'M USING PESTO? Thank you for paying attention, you culinary hawk! For all your recipes with an uncooked sauce, like pesto, you sauté the pasta in extra-virgin olive oil (13 tbsp depending on quantity) and add the pasta water little by little as explained above. When the pasta is cooked, transfer it to a warm bowl, add the sauce, stir, and serve. I found this oil-and-water technique in a cookbook by Allan Bay, unfortunately published only in Italian (by Feltrinelli). 

So, are you ready to try this? Let me know how it goes! 

*OK, I'm sure I'm not the only one who came up with this. If you cook pasta like this, please share!!!

**I get my whole-what pasta from Trader Joe's. It's organic, it's cheaper than many other supermarket brands, and it does a great job at staying al dente. Plus, it tastes like pasta, not like gritty cardboard, which I appreciate.